Earlier this year I enjoyed a few days back home in Dublin with my sister and her family. It’s always such a treat, something to look forward to, relax into. Every time again. The wonderful, easy familiarity of their home and hospitality covers me like a warm blanket, smoothing out the stresses and strains of ‘normal’ life.
There’s the great food; endless mugs of strong black tea; hot buttered toast in the morning and regular shushing of the lazy, family dog. Which, when combined with the continuous chatter and sharp, unforgiving humour of my family (natural talents in fast, merciless verbal spats) makes short shrift of my more serious, control-freak self. In no time at all the lighter, giggling, who-cares-less version of me has been resurrected. Life takes on a new, cheerier perspective. I luxuriate and take distance from humdrum stuff and wake without an agenda in my head.
Having woken to a clear blue sky on day two, I decided to walk to the shopping mall, a 15 minute trot in my flats – but as I set out the weather made a sudden shift and within minutes I was breathing in a fine mist of Irish rain, the sky filling overhead with plump, dark grey clouds.
Known for pontificating on the benefits of walking to my car-loving nieces, I was reluctant to take a bus. To do so felt like cheating (honestly, even I’m a bit irritated by me as I recall this!). But as the cold droplets dribbled slowly down my neck I gave in and hurried into the shelter. And that’s when the interesting part began.
Inching my way into a dusty, grubby corner, it took me a moment to shrug off the cold and notice those around me. An elderly man with long, scraggly legs bent carelessly beneath him, looking slightly the worse for wear, was seated on the thin, metal bench. Paying me no attention whatsoever he stared off into the distance, his cheeks flushed from the air’s chill, his feet encased in heavy brown shoes that had seen better days. I wondered where he was going and to whom. Home? On his way to pick something up, drop something off? Whatever it was, he didn’t seem to give two hoots about it. Or much else, for that matter.
The other occupant of the shelter was easier on the mind. As I raised my eyes to hers I realized she’d been observing me in turn. I smiled across to return her open interest. Late-seventies I figured, dressed carefully – not expensively – but WELL. Wearing what my mother would have called a good coat. Plain black wool, solidly buttoned up. No gloves but a pale blue scarf tied loosely around her neck. Short, silver, curled hair. She smiled back. Then, ”is it the 39A or B you’re after?”. “I haven’t a clue, to be honest. I’m headed for the Centre”. “Then it’s the B”. Decisive. No room for disagreement. How Irish. I thanked her. She smiled again.
“I’m only home for a few days, I hardly ever take the bus,” I added for no reason, the way I often do, especially in Ireland. There, people expect it. No one looks strangely at you if you offer easy conversation, as Dutch people sometimes do.
“Really? So where do you live then?” she threw back, moving a few steps closer. We fell into an easy conversation. She told me she knew others, like me, who’d moved abroad in the eighties. Neighbors’ children, some of whom had recently returned. “But they’re in trouble now”, she said with regret, “this country’s in a right mess. Big houses, big mortgages and no money coming in to pay for them”. I nodded in agreement, my heart aching mildly in recognition of the missing. I understood very well what had brought them back because it never completely goes away, the longing for home.
She blamed it on the banks. Who didn’t, I thought, not mentioning that I’ve worked in the financial industry for almost eight years now, and loved every minute of it.
She wondered what it felt like to live abroad. I needed longer than a bus ride to explain the good, bad or better of the matter but gave it a stab anyway. She listened carefully. By the time the 39B came lurching into view, we were on a first name basis and had shared details of our lives, families, children (she had one daughter, still making bad decisions now and then is how she put it, it made me smile to think how a parent stays a parent, no matter what age) and laughed out loud more times than you’d believe. It warmed me, despite the drop in temperature. On the inside.
This was what I’ve always missed, living out of Ireland. The ease of connection, the casual interest, the warmth. The lack of barriers and I guess, just the simple, easy humanity of it all.
The bus pulled in. We lined up. I began searching for coins to pay my fare. She stepped in ahead of me, turning quickly back to say with a hint of pride, “put that away, I can get you in for free with my OAP pass”, her hand covering mine gently. I didn’t object, I could tell it pleased her to do it. What a nice start to my day, I thought. What a lovely lady. Isn’t it great when life throws you an unexpected gift like that?